Dame Katherine Grainger appeared at the Cambridge Union, taking questions from students and journalists alikeAlisa Molotova/Getty Images

Katherine Grainger strode into the chamber at the Cambridge Union only days after returning from Pyeongchang, where she had taken in record-breaking British success at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. The ex-athlete, who now chairs UK Sport, the body which determines funding for elite athletes pursuing Olympic dreams, talked of the “heartbreaking” experience of watching speed skater Elise Christie crash out and fall short of her dreams yet again. Christie is an exceptional case. Such potential, such disappointment.

Relatively new to her role at UK Sport, Grainger was not personally responsible for Christie’s funding, but she is now accountable for the raft of public money which is spent on such athletes. An interview at the Union is an opportunity, therefore, as a common or garden sports enthusiast, to hold her to account.

Unsure of how much time I will get when she appears in the library, I ask in front an engaged audience how her organisation can continue to justify its immense financial backing of British Cycling, a medal factory that has become embroiled in doping and bullying scandals, the latter of which has resulted in legal action on which Grainger could not comment? Grainger’s answer is that her job is to create “inspirational success.” Having spoken of her personal interest in justice and injustice coming from a legal background in an academic sense, she adds that she does not wish to “punish the innocent,” and speaks in particular of the track side of British Cycling. She points out that her organisation and others moved quickly to facilitate an independent investigation of British Cycling in the wake of Jess Varnish’s sexism allegations, and that investment can remain since British Cycling has implemented over fifty recommended changes, some of which include personnel.

The pool of money which UK Sport controls is public money; it comes from those who play the National Lottery and from the government. For the Tokyo cycle (between 2016 and 2022), £30 million has been allocated to rowing, and over £25 million to sailing. With these sports having extensive class-based histories, is this funding something Grainger wishes to change? Her response: “So what UK Sport gets a lot of credibility for is generally how fair the decision making is.” Addressing the suggestion of class playing a role, Grainger is keen to stress how it is the “potential of athletes and the systems that they are part of” which determines funding. “It does not get decided because individual athletes are more deserving, it does not get decided because of class background,” she adds.

When pressed on whether her tenure will see a change in focus, a move away from the medal factories of cycling and rowing, Grainger comments that there are opportunities to change the focus, but that “you have to be consistent in decision-making.” Grainger seems to have backed herself into a corner, proselytising consistency while in recent months the sport of badminton had all its elite funding cut despite winning a medal at the 2016 Rio Games only to have funding reinstated months later. Yet, the Scot fiercely defends her organisation, and the apparent U-turn, explaining that UK Sport “make an annual investment and then it’s reviewed annually.” Badminton’s success at last year’s World Championships in Glasgow is offered by Grainger as reason enough for the reinstatement of UK Sport funding for the sport and evidence of a working system.

Grainger won gold in the Double Sculls with Anna Watkins at London 2012Flickr - Joanne

I question whether badminton won the “wrong medal” at Rio, but Grainger is quick to assuage such a notion, “there’s no right or wrong medal, trust me.” Given Grainger is the proud owner of four Olympic silver medals and one gold, the latter won at London, I trust her. Grainger’s position is often perilous, and the badminton episode has threatened to cast doubts over the efficacy of her organisation, but her defence of badminton’s funding situation is sage. It does, however, bring up two noteworthy comments. The first is that UK Sport refuses to rest on its laurels: “it’s not a reward for the medal that was won”, she says of funding. Speaking specifically of badminton, Grainger opines that “looking forward at the setup that they had, there wasn’t justification going forward that they would be a priority.” Secondly, however, and perhaps the most pressing concern for her, is that “the money that we have doesn’t go as far as it used to.” Badminton fell just below the line for funding in the months after Rio, and Grainger is proud of her review system, but that money is tight will be a concern for the coming months.

The Winter Olympics were beamed into our homes courtesy of the BBC. Through the night coverage supposedly enthralled the nation, the fortunes of Eve Muirhead’s curling squad were the water-cooler talk of offices up and down the country. It is in no small part due to the approach of UK Sport in years gone by that Team GB’s medal haul is a hot topic. The focus on medals is not, however, with cost. It is this cost that I put to Grainger.

“Do you think that the cost that comes with this insatiable drive for medals is acceptable? There are cases of say, Rebekah Wilson, the bobsleigh athlete, who reported self-harming as her way of coping with the stress that was brought on by this immense focus on medals. “Do you think that’s acceptable? Do you think it’s good for the public?” Grainger’s response is to ask my own opinion, to which I say “I don’t know anymore,” largely owing to the disbelief that a medal in a sport that I, and so many others, have never had the chance to do, and will never do, will have that much of a positive impact. But Grainger is keen to stress that her organisation considers its impact more widely than one might think: “We have to try and help inspiration through sport and through medal success.”

“We have to try and help inspiration through sport and through medal success”

Grainger also cautions against the phrase “insatiable drive for medals,” suggesting instead that athletes self-impose the pressure to perform, “athletes live it, and breathe it, and love it for that very reason.” Yet, she is also well aware that the support necessary for athletes under immense personal pressure, stress, and expectation must be in place. Reflecting on her own experience, Grainger recalls athletes being in debt when she started out over twenty years ago, whereas now with the support offered by UK Sport, amongst others, athletes can be full-time but “with that, it brings in a new intensity and an expectation from everyone watching that we can keep delivering these great medals.” It is this intensity, says Grainger, which some will find tough and though we are, as a nation, “very good at the physiotherapists and doctors… there’s a growing awareness that actually the mental side can be just as testing and potentially as damaging.”

Grainger goes on to list, proudly, the achievements of UK Sport in helping to ameliorate the impact of being a full-time professional athlete: athletes now have access to the Priory, and independent, safe outlets now exist for athletes who have issues which they do not feel they can discuss with coaches or selectors. “There’s big culture health checks that run through every sport and sports have to be accountable, especially sports that are funded; they have to meet certain criteria to make sure that they have put checks in places for athletes in the system.” In the wake of the legal proceedings being brought by Jess Varnish, Rebekah Wilson’s harrowing ordeal, and an investigation surrounding bullying allegations made by para-swimmers at British Swimming, it is reassuring to hear that Grainger is taking the situation seriously. For Grainger to be satisfied with delivering on the remit of UK Sport – the deliverance of medals – would be seriously misguided.


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As time ticks on, Grainger is drawn to concluding the interview with an address of the question of whether it is all worth it. “When you’re talking about the value of what you get when those medals come in, the inspiration that we have is far wider than we probably list.” Grainger has stern words for those that doubt UK Sport, telling of how, on the day that Lizzy Yarnold defended her skeleton gold medal, over 500 people phoned into UK Sport asking how they could get involved in skeleton. Grainger adds that this is just the tip of the iceberg, describing how “you get people taking up different sports, and people who just want to be active.”

Her message seems to be that UK Sport and the work it does is beneficial beyond all measure, “there are more things that those positive messages will have the influence on than we will ever know and that we can ever measure and capture fully.” Those positive messages being the stories of success and the overcoming adversity on the part of UK Sport-funded elite athletes. “We can’t necessarily count the numbers of people that might, in some way, have their lives made a little bit better by watching that level of success.”

Katherine Grainger left the water behind long ago, and is now focused solely on events off the water in the myriad of sports for which she is now responsible. Not afraid of answering the tough questions, she struck a tone befitting an individual with such influence.  Only time will tell if she decides to support Team GB in its pursuit of medals, or if her tenure at UK Sport will mark a change in an organisation many have suggested is out of touch

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